Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Over My Dead Body (1939)

There's a nice "extra" to this story since this is one of more than 20 Nero Wolfe books and short stories to be adapted by the A & E TV series between 2001 and 2002. Not only can you read the book but you can see a really faithful adaptation of it as well. And we'll get into that a bit more below. For now.....

The Plot: A young Montenegrin woman comes to Wolfe to ask him to defend one of her fellow countrywomen, Neya Tormic, against a charge that she stole diamonds from a client at the fencing school where both women teach. The women can't pay Wolfe's usual fees but they call upon his good will since Neya claims to be his daughter!

Wolfe reluctantly admits that years ago in his idealism he fought for Montenegro's independence. Finding a starving, orphaned girl he adopted her to provide for her but later left the country but sent money to continue to provide for her care. When he tried to find her again later she had vanished.

Wolfe takes on the case despite his questioning on if Neya is that little girl but the mystery of the missing diamonds is quickly settled without him having to lift a finger. Before he can even be informed of this fact, though, there is a murder and Neya and her friend Carla are in the thick of things again.

The murder is wrapped up in international intrigue and spy vs. spy, much to Wolfe's annoyance. He must untangle a web to find out if his client is guilty or innocent and even to discover if she really is his daughter.

My Take: As I've mentioned before, I watched (and loved) the A & E series when it first ran in 2001-2002. Since I saw the episodes which were based on this book it was impossible for me to come to Over My Dead Body completely cold as I have with the other stories.

That being said, the reading added an extra layer to things and readers might need to keep a scorecard for this book... I know I almost did. This is one of Stout's more complex stories to date as there is a small raft of characters and a lot happening among them all. If you aren't paying attention it is easy to get lost in the maze-like plot.

All of this is not a bad thing, however. The layers upon layers, the family drama, murder mystery, and espionage thriller aspects of things blend rather well and prove that there is no one quite like Rex Stout for pulling all the threads together and coming up with something so eminently readable.

If there is a fault to be found it is that many of the characters are a little thin. In some cases Stout crafted characters who are more like countries personified than they are characters.

All of this can be overlooked though with the taut, layered mystery that constantly keeps you guessing.

Out of curiosity, I also decided to take another look at the corresponding A & E episode after I read the book, just to see how well they compare, and I have to admit I was shocked. I know that there were praises for the series for being faithful to Stout's work but I really cannot remember if I have ever seen an adaptation that was so much like someone had simply set the book to film. The dialogue is nearly exact and scenes play out almost precisely as Stout wrote them originally. There are a few things to quibble with (actor James Tolkan's attempt at a British accent being one of them. Ouch. Seriously. I like Tolkan as an actor but that accent was just... bad. And actor Maury Chaykin isn't *quite* the Nero Wolfe I have in my head... but he's darn close) but when you get down to it most of it is just nitpicking. If you get a chance to I do highly recommend reading the book and then watching the episodes. The series brilliantly brought Stout's book to life here and if you're like me you'll probably spend the rest of your reading hearing Timothy Hutton's voice in your head as you read Archie Goodwin.

Favorite Quote of the Book: Apparently, Mr. Faber, Mr. Goodwin doesn't like you. Let's disregard that. What can I do for you?

"You can first," said Faber in his perfect precise English, "instruct your subordinate to answer questions which are put to him."

"I suppose I can. I'll try it sometime. What else can I do for you?"

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